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Rethinking Marriage. The World Has Changed. It's Time!

We must do more than simply re-integrate new groups into an old system. We need to seriously consider our assumptions about the system itself.

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So what are we to make of marriage? It is both a deeply personal relationship for which people will make almost unthinkable sacrifices, and it is a declining social institution offering little security for most who enter it.

As a black, feminist, marriage-equality advocate I reside at an important intersection in this struggle. This movement must acknowledge the unique history of racial oppression, while still revealing the interconnections of all marriage exclusion. This work must reflect the feminist critique of marriage, while still acknowledging the ancient, cross cultural, human attachment to marriage. This work must be staunchly supportive of same-sex marriage, while rejecting a marriage-normative framework that silences the contributions of queer life.

Typically advocates of marriage equality try to reassure the voting public the same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself. "Don't worry," we say, "allowing gay men and lesbians to marry will not threaten the established norms; it will simply assimilate new groups into old practices."

This is a pragmatic, political strategy, but I hope it is not true. I hope same-sex marriage changes marriage itself. I hope it changes marriage the way that no-fault divorce changed it. I hope it changes marriage the way that allowing women to own their own property and seek their own credit changed marriage. I hope it changes marriage the way laws against spousal abuse and child neglect changed marriage. I hope marriage equality results more equal marriages. I also hope it offers more opportunities for building meaningful adult lives outside of marriage.

I know from personal experience that a bad marriage is enough to rid you of the fear of death. But this experience allows me suspect that a good marriage must be among the most powerful, life-affirming, emotionally fulfilling experiences available to human beings. I support marriage equality not only because it is unfair, in a legal sense, to deny people the privileges of marriage based on their identity; but also because it also seems immoral to forbid some human beings from opting into this emotional experience.

We must do more than simply integrate new groups into an old system. Let's use this moment to re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough.